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On The Road Reviewed by Lee Marshall

After more than five decades of thwarted adapta- tions, Jack Kerouac’s iconic 1957 Beat-generation novel has finally made it to the screen. But while it is well cast, resplendently shot and buoyed by a moody jazz soundtrack, On The Road fails to “burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles”, to quote one of the book’s more celebrated passages. Walter Salles’ film is designer Kerouac, a slick product that deploys all the tools of the big-budget, award-chas- ing indie film — some handheld camerawork, a lit- tle desaturated colour, hot young actors — to craft a product that feels oddly flat despite the romantic, creative, freewheeling lifestyle it enshrines. There are moments, to be fair, when it captures something of the bebop spirit of the age; but much of the time it feels more like a Beat-generation brochure. Still, the polite ripple of applause the film

received after its Cannes press screening will trans- late into a more than polite ripple of box-office action for a commercially smart film that will attract both older audiences, nostalgic for the buzz Ker- ouac’s book gave them all those years ago, and younger viewers curious about the Beat mythology. For the latter demographic, the on-the-money cast- ing of Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), Sam Riley (Control) and Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga) will also exercise a pull. Nominations may be likely for adapted screenplay, cinematography and, pos-


Fr-Bra. 2012. 137mins Director Walter Salles Production companies MK2, American Zoetrope, Vanguard Films, Film4, France 2 Cinéma International sales MK2, Producers Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gillibert, Rebecca Yeldham, Roman Coppola Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, John Williams, Jerry Leider, Tessa Ross, Arpad Busson Screenplay José Rivera, from the novel by Jack Kerouac Cinematography Eric Gautier Editor Francois Gédigier Production designer Carlos Conti Music Gustavo Santaolalla Main cast Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen

sibly, best actor for Hedlund (who smoulders like a young Brad Pitt in a camera-hogging performance). Part adaptation, part biopic, the film dips into

Kerouac’s life between 1947 and 1951, the years of his friendship with Neal Cassady, the main charac- ter and inspiration of the author’s heavily autobio- graphical novel. Real-life characters are given fictional monikers, exactly as in the book: Kerouac himself becomes Sal Paradise; Cassady is Dean Moriarty; Kerouac’s Beat poet friend, Allen Gins- berg, is Carlo Marx; and Cassady’s first wife, LuAnne Henderson, is Marylou. It is the shifting quadrangle of alliances formed

by Dean (Hedlund), Sal (Riley), Marylou (Stewart) and, to a lesser extent, Carlo (Sturridge) that the script homes in on, as the quartet criss-cross Amer- ica from New York to Denver (Dean and Marylou’s home town) to California, and back. Along the way, Dean divorces Marylou for Camille (Dunst), the novel’s name for Carolyn, the mother of Cassady’s three children — but keeps Marylou on as his lover. Also featuring, in a New Orleans sequence, is Old Bull Lee (Mortensen), aka the original junkie writer, William Burroughs, and Terry (Braga), a single mother with whom Sal has a brief affair. With his background of petty crime, romantic

conquests and self-taught literary yearnings, the effortlessly virile Dean is a magnetic figure for the more introverted Sal, who admires, it is suggested, his impulsiveness and freedom from social con- straint. Carlo’s own admiration of Dean is compli- cated by his homosexuality and Dean’s bisexuality. Uncomplicatedly sexy Marylou is perhaps the

only one who sees Dean as he is: fun to be with, a great lover but entirely selfish. Sal’s facing up to the fact Dean is unable to accept responsibility or remain loyal to friends and lovers is the backbone of the film’s otherwise freewheeling road-movie structure. Many facts are fudged in Rivera’s script — per-

haps the chief one being the suggestion On The Road was the first major literary product of the obsessive notebook scribbling in which we see Sal indulge — whereas he actually published his debut novel, The Town And The City, during the period covered here. There is no sign, either, of Kerouac’s wife of the time, Joan Haverty. But these truth-tweaks are all of a piece with the film version’s indulgent embrace of Kerouac’s self-sustaining myth. Even the tubes of Benzedrine that are hoovered

up by the protagonists look pretty in a film that goes for atmosphere over emotion and the ticking off of cultural references (from Proust via Rimbaud to Charlie Parker) that it never quite knows what to do with. The sunset-kissed or snow-dusted rural landscapes of America (mostly shot on location in Canada) are ravishing, and the soundtrack, scored by Gustavo Santaolalla with jazz musicians Charlie Haden and Brian Blade, is a concise snapshot of the era. But in its relentless pursuit of visual and aural polish and in the way it tamely critiques Kerouac’s legend at the same time that it glorifies it, On The Road feels a little shallow.

SCREEN SCORE ★★ May 24, 2012 Screen International at Cannes 5 n

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